Learn To Play: Riffs in the Key of Brian Setzer

Photo by Larry Busacca / Getty Images

Rockabilly revivalist Brian Setzer turns 58 today. People might associate him most with ‘Tron-powered twang, slapback tape echo, and indulgent Bigsby use, but the careful listener will hear Setzer play with a vocabulary that borrows as much from multiple eras of jazz and blues as it does from straight ahead rock.

From his rise to prominence in the ‘80s with the Stray Cats to his resurgence in the ‘90s with The Brian Setzer Orchestra, people have always seen Setzer as the something of a rebel slinging his iconic Gretsch G6120. Beyond the hot rod aesthetic — slick hair, tattoos, pin-up stickers, dice control knobs — he is an incredibly talented musician with deep knowledge of the fretboard.

We decided to pay homage to the multi-talented guitarist by diving into how he gets his sound with phrasing and chord voicings, not just with his rig. Check out the playlist above for three lessons covering his work on:

  • The riff from ”Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown”
  • The solo from ”Hot Rod Girl”
  • The riff from “Ignition!”
Brian Setzer "Hot Rod Girl" Solo Riff on Guitar | Reverb Learn to Play
Brian Setzer "Ignition!" Riff on Guitar | Reverb Learn to Play

Brian Setzer’s Rig

For those interested in his gear, a good starting point would be grabbing a Gretsch 6120 (he has multiple signature versions of this model as well) or, if you’re shopping on a budget, the Gretsch G5420.

For amps, Setzer’s been known to use early ‘60s brownface Fender Bassmans with the 6G6B circuit and AMS tubes, as well as a the occasional Fender Princeton.

When it comes to effects, he keeps it simple, favoring a Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo for most of his slapback and tone-shaping. Given that few people have $1k to spend on the real thing, a more accessible pedal for getting that rockabilly echo is the Keeley Memphis Sun.

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